Viva la Vida, or Death and All His Friends

Tonight we went to a performance by the musical theater class that some of my young people—Brown Bear Daughter (14), Artiste Daughter (20), Drama Daughter (18), and Karate Kid (12)—attend. The students all did a fantastic job, presenting songs and choreography such as “The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends” from Oklahoma! and “My New Philosophy” from You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. The last song on the program was something called “Viva la Vida”, a song I’d never heard of. So I asked a friend about my age about it.

She said, “You’re not a Coldplay fan?”

“Not exactly,” I replied. “I’ve heard of Coldplay, but I can’t say I know this particular song.”

“Oh, you’ve heard the song,” she said.”You’re living and breathing; you’ve heard Viva la Vida.”

Then another friend, younger and quite knowledgeable about music of all kinds, began to tell me about her interpretation of the song’s lyrics. “Most people,” she said, “think it’s about the French Revolution. But it’s really about Satan and the end of his reign in the 1000 year millennium. You listen to all the BIblical references, and you’ll see.”

So I listened, as I watched the amazing choreography that the kids had put together, and then I came home and looked up the lyrics. (I did, in fact, recognize the song as one I had heard before, but I wasn’t that familiar with it. So I guess that means I’m still alive, barely.) There’s some controversy about some of the words, but here’s the gist:

I used to rule the world
Seas would rise when I gave the word
Now in the morning I sleep (sweep) alone
Sweep the streets I used to own

I used to roll the dice
Feel the fear in my enemies eyes
Listen as the crowd would sing
“Now the old king is dead! Long live the King!”

One minute I held the key
Next the walls were closed on me
And I discovered that my castles stand
Upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand

I hear Jerusalem bells are ringing
Roman Cavalry (Catholic) choirs are singing
Be my mirror my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field

For some reason I can’t explain
Once you’d gone it was never
Never an honest word
That was when I ruled the world

It was the wicked and wild wind
Blew down the doors to let me in
Shattered windows and the sound of drums
People could not believe what I’d become

Revolutionaries wait
For my head on a silver plate
Just a puppet on a lonely string
Oh who would ever want to be King?

I hear Jerusalem bells are ringing
Roman Cavalry (Catholic) choirs are singing
Be my mirror my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field

For some reason I can’t explain
I know Saint Peter won’t (will) call my name
Never an honest word
But that was when I ruled the world
Whoa-oa-oah! Whoa-oa-oah!

I hear Jerusalem bells are ringing
Roman Cavalry (Catholic) choirs are singing
Be my mirror my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field
For some reason I can’t explain
I know Saint Peter will (won’t) call my name
Never an honest word
But that was when I ruled the world
Oooh-ooh-ooh-ooh. Oooh-ooh-ooh-ooh.

Either Louis VIII is bemoaning his lost throne and lost power in the wake of the French Revolution, or Satan is reminiscing about when he used to “rule the world” with “never an honest word.” Or it’s both—and then some. I think that many modern day song writers write lyrics by throwing around images and metaphors into a kind of mish-mosh, and they are themselves surprised to see what comes out at the end. If you’ve got lots of Biblical images in your head, as the lyricists for Coldplay obviously do, then what comes out is going to have some kind of Biblical meaning (may be somewhat heretical, but nevertheless Biblical) even if you originally set out to write a song about the French Revolution because there’s not a lot of discipline or form to the lyrics themselves. No one tells the lyricists: “This is the meter and the rhyme scheme and the order you have to follow to write song lyrics.” And then the interpretation of the lyrics themselves is left up to the listener. If the song doesn’t really mean anything, specifically, then each listener can make up his or her own meaning. The whole exercise reminds me of when we used to spend hour arguing about the meaning of each specific image and incident in the song American Pie by Don McLean. (Now I’ve dated myself!)

“You seem very clever at explaining words, Sir,” said Alice. “Would you kindly tell me the meaning of the poem called Jabberwocky?”

“Let’s hear it,” said Humpty Dumpty. “I can explain all the poems that ever were invented — and a good many that haven’t been invented just yet.”

This sounded very hopeful, so Alice repeated the first verse:
“‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.”
“That’s enough to begin with,” Humpty Dumpty interrupted: “there are plenty of hard words there. ‘Brillig’ means four o’clock in the afternoon — the time when you begin broiling things for dinner.”

“That’ll do very well,” said Alice: `and ‘slithy’?”

“Well, ‘slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy’. ‘Lithe’ is the same as ‘active’. You see it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word.”

“I see it now,” Alice remarked thoughtfully: “and what are ‘toves’?”

“Well, ‘toves’ are something like badgers — they’re something like lizards — and they’re something like corkscrews.”

“They must be very curious-looking creatures.”

“They are that,” said Humpty Dumpty; “also they make their nests under sun-dials — also they live on cheese.”

Ah, that Lewis Carroll, he was ahead of his time! It is a rather catchy tune, and I can Humpty-Dumpty the lyrics with the best of them. And I’m expecting St. Peter to call my name to the sound of Roman Catholic choirs and Jerusalem bells.

1 thought on “Viva la Vida, or Death and All His Friends

  1. Okay I’m not sure if my comment just went through or not so I’ll try again. I love viva la vida, but if you like it you absolutely must watch this, it’s simply gorgeous:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KfH2BY5pdLw

    And as for songs with biblical references, try U2’s “Until the End of the World”. I listened to it over and over again, attempting to understand what it was saying, at first thinking it was a love song. When it clicked that this was Judas speaking to Jesus the song came alive..wow

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